By Stu Hackel
The NHL's regular season is at the halfway point. A number of teams have hit the 41-game mark and the 615th contest of the 1230-game schedule was played on Monday. So here are some things that have struck us so far, in no particular order.
Best Team: The New York Rangers wrung up the most points the league, but the Boston Bruins have been even more impressive. The B's have scored 70 more goals than they've allowed (runners-up Vancouver and Detroit are plus-36; the Rangers plus-35 by comparison) and, if you've watched them, you surely notice they're playing with an unmatched confidence, something that comes from having their players raise their games to new heights while winning the Stanley Cup last year. The Bruins can play any style of hockey and win, especially when the games get rugged. What other team could let a potential 25-plus goal scorer (Michael Ryder) walk away and not suffer his loss? Boston's excellent goaltending still covers up defensive breakdowns but the blueline corps, which remained suspect heading into this season, may have raised its game most of all. So far, the Bruins have been spared serious injuries to their regulars and have just been handed their first somewhat lengthy suspension (five games for Brad Marchand), but we wouldn't bet against them in a seven-game series against any team right now.
Most Surprising Teams: Two kinds here -- ones that have surprised by playing well and others by playing, well, not so well. On the positive side, the Florida Panthers and, to a lesser extent, the Minnesota Wild are exceeding what most pundits thought they would do. While most recognized that the Rangers were on the rise, few expected them to be this good. Everyone knew the St. Louis Blues had talent, but no one was sure if we'd ever see it. The Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs have also -- finally -- moved upward, which wasn't entirely anticipated. And the Ottawa Senators, an afterthought to many, had a very good -- and very exciting, given their regular late game heroics -- first half. Ottawa is a team that refuses to lose.
Most Disappointing Teams: Big things were anticipated for the retooled Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings, and as of now, they are well below expectations. The Washington Capitals had also made improvements and were thought to a stronger group than they've shown. And while somewhat less was expected of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens and the Anaheim Ducks, you can add that trio to this list as well. No shock that four of these six teams fired their coaches during the first half (SI.com Photo Gallery: NHL Coaching Carousel).
Best Coaching Job: There are a few worthy candidates here. Paul MacLean has shaped the Senators into a very intriguing team with most of the same parts that Cory Clouston had last year. MacLean's experience, easier demeanor and NHL savvy have created a more harmonious environment in which the Sens have flourished.
First-year head coach Mike Yeo in Minnesota has gotten his troops to buy into his system with good results,too. Injuries and their own sketchy talent level have knocked them back a few pegs from their first-quarter rush to the top of the league, but much of what they've achieved as been thanks to Yeo's aggressive style.
Kudos also to another first-year bench boss: Kevin Dineen in Florida. He was handed a team overflowing with newcomers and molded it into a cohesive group that has made the entire league take notice.
John Tortorella, for all his histrionics, has the Rangers ahead of where most people thought they'd be by this point. He's made key adjustments to his forward lines that get the most out of his elite players and his young hard workers, of which he has many. Assistant Mike Sullivan deserves credit for his work with the defense corps, which has done well despite key injuries.
But none of the above has done a better job than Ken Hitchcock of the Blues. Engineering a dramatic turnaround -- not often seen after in-season coaching changes -- he took a meandering 6-7-0 team and gave it structure, confidence and an identity. The Blues have gone 19-5-5 under Hitch, become a leader in goals-against, and the leader in fewest shots allowed. They're very tough at home, but need to improve on the road. Still, there's no reason to think, as long as they stay healthy and their goaltending holds up, they won't be a force in the West down the stretch and in the postseason.
Most Surprising Players: Toronto fans whose horizons don't extend beyond the Air Canada Centre may beg forgiveness for asking "How is Joffrey Lupul doing this?" when he started piling up points in the early going. But Lupul had topped 20 goals three times while playing elsewhere, so he's hardly a scoring neophyte. Still, he's on pace to perhaps double his best seasons, as he's averaging over a point per game playing opposite Phil Kessel on the Maple Leafs' top line.
If anyone tells you they thought Brian Elliott would be among the best goalies in the NHL this season, don't believe them. (My SI.com colleague Michael Farber wrote this feature about Elliot's surprising rise.) A Senators cast off who the Avalanche also let walk away, Elliott's 1.62 GAA and .944 save percentage surpass Henrik Lundqvist, Tim Thomas and all NHL goalies who have made over 15 appearances.
Most Disappointing Players: Just two seasons ago, Ryan Miller was the NHL's top goalie. What has happened? Who knows? Never the biggest of netminders, perhaps he's worn down. Regardless, Miller has been leaky again this season, in fact, leakier than last year with a goals against average over 3.00 and a save percentage hovering around .900. Perhaps his recent struggles are related to his concussion after was freight-trained by Milan Lucic. Miller is only 5-6-2 since returning. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff says he'll try giving Miller more work to rebuild his game and confidence, but the Sabres won't be a factor if he continues to struggle.
It would be wrong to blame all of Anaheim's woes on one line, especially not with their ragged defense corps and the collapse of their goaltending. But the Bobby Ryan-Ryan Getzlaff- Corey Perry threesome produced the NHL's lone 50-goal scorer last season (Perry). Since then, the trio has plummeted into, at best, mediocrity, and been unable to lift the Ducks out of hot water. Ryan has 18 tallies and needed a hat trick on Sunday to get there. That puts him on pace for 36. It would still be his second-best season total, but the wounded Ducks surely would benefit from more consistent production. It's not just in scoring goals where Ryan has lagged; his assists have fallen off as well. He's been good for nearly 50 in each of the last two seasons, but his current pace would only get him to 34, and that shows how Perry and Getzlaf have dropped off. Ryan has been the subject of regular trade speculation (and when GM Bob Murray recently listed none of the three as among his untouchables, the rumor mill went into overdrive). Collectively, the trio is minus-34 for the first half. Ugly ducklings, indeed.
And, of course, Alex Ovechkin.
Here are some other thoughts on bigger themes around the game:
In-Season Coach Firings: Unless our senior memory cells have misfired, we only counted two coaches who were dismissed during the 2010-11 campaign (John MacLean in New Jersey and Scott Gordon on Long Island). With Scott Arniel's firing in Columbus this week, seven coaches have walked the plank so far. It's the most since the lockout. (We'll have to do more research to go further back.) Each case is different, but the concern that sagging teams need a jumpstart or risk missing the playoffs is the biggest reason. Not so with the Blue Jackets, however.
Injuries and Concussions: Almost every franchise has had at least one of core player miss time with some sort of injury and it has had a dramatic impact on each club's performance. A few teams have been more fortunate, but one like Pittsburgh, which is currently without Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang (not to mention James Neal, who is playing with a badly bruised foot) can't help but start to dip in the standings. As of this writing, the Penguins have lost five straight.
Most alarming on the injury front is the increase in concussions. The season started on a hopeful note, with the NHL announcing a decline, according to their preliminary numbers, of about half. But a recent sharp increase has the league outpacing last season's rate. (On his Concussion Blog, Dustin Fink's latest stats put the spike at 39 percent through early 2012. It must be noted that Fink's figures are unofficial as he tries to fill the gaps in what he sees as NHL clubs' sketchy reporting of head injuries, which can mask concussions).
Supplemental Discipline: Many injuries and concussions occur during the normal run of play and are just the consequence of hockey being a physical sport played at high speeds with boards, sticks and pucks (unless you're the Kings' Dustin Penner and are felled by a dangerous sneeze while eating disrespectful pancakes at breakfast). The injuries that are deliberately caused by other players' reckless or willful acts, however, cause the largest uproar throughout the league. The hullabaloo that accompanied Brendan Shanahan's promotion to vice president in charge of the newly created Department of Player Safety gave hope that the league would truly crack down on dangerous play.
That's how things looked in the preseason but, as we noted early on, Shanahan's rulings became less harsh and even reminiscent of those handed down when Colin Campbell was the league's chief disciplinarian.
While Shanny has not been as consistently stern as some (this blogger included) would like -- sometimes fining when he should suspend and giving two games when five would be appropriate -- we can't agree with those who say there has been no progress in this area (as The Hockey News' excellent columnist Adam Proteau wrote last week).
While you wouldn't know it from the number of fines and suspensions (31 suspensions totalling 105 man games lost and $1,749,416.33 in forfeited salary), there is greater awareness on what is and is not acceptable behavior on the ice than there was before. Shanahan's videos bring a level of transparency the game has never experienced, and those videos not only graphically explain to the fans and the media what is and is not permissible and why, but the players and teams see them as well, so the videos serve as a terrific educational tool.
Could and should some of the bans be harsher? Absolutely, as we argued last week when serial offender Dan Carcillo got only seven games for his 1oth episode requiring league action. Longer bans would be a more effective deterrent than what too many of the sentences have looked like this year.
But still, every once in a while, Shanahan shows that he hasn't entirely backed down, like when he hit Boston's Brad Marchand with five games for low-bridging Vancouver's Sami Salo in a game last Saturday. That's a play Marchand used during last year's Cup final and he was unpunished for it. Bruins fans won't agree, of course, and will claim that others beside Marchand have gotten away with that infraction. But they shouldn't have gotten away with it and neither should Marchand. For the good of the game, we hope Shanahan holds the line -- and even advances it -- on dangerous play.
Top Feel-Good Story: The return of the Winnipeg Jets.
Top Feel-Bad Story: John Branch's New York Times series on Derek Boogaard.
NHL Realignment: Here today, gone tomorrow, the league's ambitious and popular plan to remake itself for next season ran into problems when the NHL Players Association wanted more specific information on how the schedule and playoffs might work and to suggest some alternatives. Whatever the league provided wasn't what the PA sought, and when the union wanted to discuss alternative approaches to the playoffs, the league wasn't in a talking mood. Apparently, the league would settle for the PA's consent, but didn't want its advice.
After the union informed the league that it could not give its consent, the league pulled the entire plan off the table; so the conferences and playoffs will look the same next season as they do now.
The players were concerned that the entire process was being rushed. As Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo's Puck Daddy wrote, "The earliest the NHL could have given a schedule to the teams and players was May. That's far too late to really know what the repercussions of this new format were, in the time frame the NHLPA was given for approval.
"Is there really any reason to make this a process of several months rather than a couple of years? To wait for two additional expansion teams to balance out the conferences? To wait to see what time zone the Phoenix Coyotes will play in next season? To simply flip the Winnipeg Jets for the Columbus Blue Jackets for now with a vow to the Red Wings, Stars, Predators and Wild that their time zone dilemmas will be dealt with down the line?
"Why did we need radical realignment for next season?... Is there anything wrong with taking a step back and making sure we aren't creating additional problems with this solution?"
Nope. There's certainly a solution to be found down the line that will be more agreeable to both sides. It might not have been solved in the first half of this season, but the issues that need a solution aren't going anywhere.